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Kim-chi on Vietnamese restaurant menus - parallel evolution or inspired culinary borrowing?

Kimchi seems to be on the appetizer list of almost every Vietnamese restaurant I've been too. It always mystifies me a bit - how did a Korean delight bypass China and Japan (to my knowledge), yet earn a place on a Vietnamese menu?

I have a hypothesis that it could be one of two things...

My first theory is that the Vietnamese had developed their own version of deliciously spicy pickled cabbage, and have put it on a menu with name that's familiar to Westerners like me.

My second theory is that the Vietnamese, who were inspired enough to borrow from the French in order to make submarines and pho, tried Korean kimchi, recognized the wonder of it (I agree wholeheartely with the Chowhound who call kimchi "the bacon of the vegetable world"), and immediately co-opted it for their own cuisine.

Many thanks in advance to anyone who can shed some light on my little mystery!

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  1. Kimchi is ubiquitous in Japan. It's frequently on menus as standalone items or as a cooked ingredient- particularly at Korean style BBQ places, but also at standard izakaya and other restaurants as well. It's popular in homes as well. There is usually a small kimchi section in Japanese supermarkets next to Japenese pickled vegetables. I haven't found anything less of this at the Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and occassinally order a kimchi dish. In general, pickled vegetables are a regular part of the Japanese diet. And geographical proximity, shared history, and changing tastes in Japan (more preference for spicy foods these days) make kimchi's appeal pretty obvious. So it hasn't bypassed Japan.

    I never encountered kimchi during my time spent in Vietnam. But perhaps one of your theories explains the appearance of it on Vietnamese menus in North America.

    1. Interesting because I recall reading on the lthforum of a Korean owned Pho house which seems to appear frequently in South Korea as well.

      1. There are many possibilities. I'm vietnamese and I grew up eating numerous pickled vegetables, but we call particular napa cabbage pickled vegetables "kim chi." We've already been eating pickled veggies, but this particular spin from Korea has its specific name.

        Also, many Koreans own Vietnamese restaurants now. Now you'll see kimchi not only at Korean-owned Vietnamese restaurants but Chinese restaurants and Thai restaurants. There are overlapping spice notes across the cuisines and it doesn't seem out of place - at least not to me. Although as a kimchi fanatic, I cringe at the ones with orange zest in them like the ones at San Tung!

        1 Reply
        1. re: vnchile

          I agree on that first part and would posit that kimchi was probably dispersed throughout the country during the 1960s with the Korean troops.

        2. One reason is that when the bird flu broke several years ago, there was some hype on how kimchi possibly prevented Koreans from contracting the disease. Kimchi imports to China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and many other east/south east Asian countries increased by an amazing amount.

          Here in the states a lot of Vietnamese go to Korean restaurants, and most of them really like kimchi. Also many Koreans go to Vietnamese restaurants, so it's no wonder that kimchi is spreading.

          2 Replies
          1. re: hannaone

            Vietnamese had kim chi before the bird flu.

            1. re: jaykayen

              Didn't mean to imply they didn't. The "Kimchi Cure" is partly responsible for the more recent increase in use and popularity of kimchi.

          2. The markets all over Vietnam have sections that sell all sorts of pickled vegetables. Some are quite like kimchi.

            1. Vietnamese and also Chinese have indigenous versions of seasoned pickled cabbage and other veggies.

              I haven't seen this in the US, but in Chinese restaurants abroad, there is often a small bowl of boiled soy sauce peanuts and a small bowl of Chinese style kimchi set out on the table in a Chinese restaurant the way US tex-mex restaurants set out the obligatory corn chips and salsa.

              1. That members of the cabbage family lend themselves to preservation by fermentation is taken advantage of by many cultures.. especially peoples who have to deal with long winters.. think sauerkraut, for one. My grandfather was from Siberia and his people had their own versions of fermented cabbage. His "kim chi" (I can't remember what he called it) had its heat added with dried ginger and black pepper.. not many fresh ginger plants growing near Lake Baikal! Every year he sank the big pot of fermenting cabbage in the back yard and we knew when it was ready when the neighbors asked us if we were having plumbing problems.

                1. I've never seen it on an app list (ever). I'm not sure how a vietnamese restaurant could charge for something you can get in every korean restaurant for free (but if they can, all the power to them!).

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: hsk

                    Quite a few non-Korean restaurants that offer kimchi charge anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 for a side. Typically the side is larger than what is initially given with a Korean meal.